by Sarah West
This is a season with a penchant for things orange. As much as spring revels in cool hues of green, autumn sets fire to itself, preferring to send off the season of the sun by mimicking its daily celestial farewell. In autumn, flora exude all the concentrated warm tones of a sunset: hefty orbs of winter squash and pumpkins glowing amid their rotting foliage, Technicolor pigments seeping through deciduous tree leaves as chlorophyll production halts, apples like skittish suns that plunge into the next world at the slightest bump, persimmons hanging in stubborn devotion until January. And, for those who enter the forest in this boisterous season, there is the golden chanterelle.
In our part of the country, autumn’s warm tones always come wrapped in a blanket of dark winter green. Such is the setting of the Pacific golden chanterelle: a carpet of moss, fountains of sword fern and dwarf Oregon grape, clusters of freshly fallen Douglas fir and hemlock needles from the latest bout of wind and rain, air charged with the dim green light of sun reaching through cloud and canopy. In this quiet place, if you are lucky enough to find them, you will kneel before a forest deity and take alms.
A creature neither plant nor animal, mushrooms contain no chlorophyll and are composed of chitin, the same substance that forms the exoskeleton of insects. They have only limited (slowly creeping) mobility, and they both absorb their own nutrients and feed off the carbohydrates of another organism.
It is chitin that gives mushrooms their meaty texture when cooked. Chanterelle love, however, is an affair with aroma. Their flavor is ephemeral, lifts out of the pan in a cloud of savory perfume as you cook them. The compounds that make up chanterelle flavor are mostly soluble in fat and alcohol, so employing these ingredients helps to deepen their impression on our pallet.
Chanterelles are always wild—their growth depends on a symbiotic relationship with bacteria and tree roots that science has yet to reliably replicate. The bulk of the organism lives underground in a form known as the mycelium, a network of tiny fungal strands the width of a single cell. Mycelium form sheaths around the host tree’s roots, exchanging minerals and nutrients for carbohydrates. What we think of as a chanterelle is the fruitbody of chanterelle mycelium, a reproductive structure sent aboveground to disperse spores onto the highway of air currents.
For the recreational mushroom hunter, collecting chanterelles is relatively uncertain business. Though chanterelles reappear in the same site year after year, their numbers are easily influenced by spring and summer weather, and yields vary considerably from one season to the next. Factor in that they are a popular and easy mushroom to forage, and you may be driving 1-2 hours into the forest to eagerly stare at the undergrowth, finding, if anything, only the trimmed stems of the previous forager’s loot.
But not this year. This is the year of the chanterelle, a forest gold rush of sorts. Our unseasonably warm spring gave the mycelium a head start to grow farther and wider than usual, and multiple late summer rainfalls clinched the deal, creating the perfect conditions for young fruitbodies to grow into full size mushrooms. My first harvest was in early September: we strolled through the forest in t-shirts gathering perfectly clean chanterelles that covered the slope like a bed of constellations.
Wild mushrooms hold a powerful spell over those who collect or cook them. When I kneel before a chanterelle in the oxygen-rich forest air, I experience a clarity and delight I find in few other actions. I take them with the grace and acknowledgement of a gift.
And they are suspiciously so: unlike other fungi of the forest, chanterelles are exceptionally free of insect infestations and few, if any, other forest species seem to browse on them. They contain no poisons to dissuade us. Only time seems to diminish their quality as they wait, delicate and radiant, for the one creature they have so completely seduced. Perhaps it is simply accident that leaves them sitting, perfect and approachable, on the forest floor. The exquisite aroma of a chanterelle sautéing rises up as a soul sacrificed to the gods of oversight.